This Is Only a Test

Every Tuesday at noon, San Francisco sounds a citywide siren. A voice enters my office: “This is a test of the outdoor warning system, this is only a test.” The sixty-five loudspeakers were installed during World War II to warn the residents about Japanese air raids and were recently upgraded by Mayor Gavin Newsom. Every time I hear the wailing, I automatically close the lid of my computer and prepare to run. It’s the war, I think. The Germans are coming. This is understandable if you know that I grew up in Russia, where each subway station is an air raid shelter and everyone over the age of sixty keeps their home radios on at all times. Now and then the blaring noise is a reminder that a war is a part of our lives. For a loud moment, we are aware of the fragile state of our world, and maybe that’s a good thing.

In Lynn Freed’s excerpt from The Servants’ Quarters, the Germans are also coming. It is South Africa of the 1950s, and the war plays a prominent role in the nightmares of nine-year-old Cressida. Like most of us today, Cressida was born after the war, but it doesn’t make the nightmares any easier to deal with. Cressida is constantly on edge, looking for enemies even among potential friends. Her mother’s friend, Mr. Harding, his face half-burned in the war, must be an enemy. A boy who comes to live in Mr. Harding’s house cries inexplicably over a piece of cake: Does that make him an enemy as well? Cressida’s powerlessness in the face of change that threatens to disrupt the shaky balance of her existence finds expression in her nightmares of war. The nightmares serve as powerful warning sirens of change to come. And it’s not merely a test.

—Olga Zilberbourg

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